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Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs Eyes Toronto for Its Digital City

The urban tech moonshot born at Google wants to reinvent cities `from the internet up'

Toronto, Canada on May 23, 2015.

Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg

Larry Page's dream of using technology to fix cities may come to Canada first. 

Sidewalk Labs LLC, the urban innovation unit of Page's Alphabet Inc., has applied to develop a 12-acre strip in downtown Toronto, responding to a recent city agency request for proposals, according to two people familiar with the plans. Details of the proposal are private, but these people said the bid fits with the company's ambition to create a connected, high-tech city or district from scratch.

Last year, the company began talking openly about building a theoretical urban zone "from the internet up," with some of the same tools and principles that have fueled success at many tech companies. Before applying in Toronto, Sidewalk Labs discussed creating a district in Denver and Detroit with Alphabet executives, according to the people. They asked not to be identified discussing private plans.

In a speech last week at the Smart Cities NYC conference, Sidewalk Labs Chief Executive Officer Dan Doctoroff said the firm is exploring development of a "large-scale district."

“I’m sure many of you are thinking this is a crazy idea," Doctoroff said, according to news website StateScoop. “We don’t think it’s crazy at all. People thought it was crazy when Google decided to connect all the world’s information. People thought it was crazy to think about the concept of a self-driving car.”

A representative for Sidewalk Labs confirmed Doctoroff's speech but declined to comment further. Doctoroff was CEO of Bloomberg LP and worked as deputy mayor of New York City when Bloomberg founder Michael Bloomberg was mayor. 

Canadian officials set up Waterfront Toronto, a public corporation designed to revitalize a 2,000-acre downtown plot, in 2001. Earlier this year, the agency requested proposals for part of that area: a new "community" called Quayside to be developed with a private "innovation and funding partner." Quayside would be "a testbed for emerging technologies, materials and processes that will address these challenges and advance solutions that can be replicated in cities worldwide," the city wrote in its invitation. 

Andrew Hilton, a spokesman for Waterfront Toronto, declined to comment on the applicants for Quayside or its funding structure. The agency plans to identify its development partner by June at the earliest, according to its proposal document.

Formed two years ago, Sidewalk Labs was among the first independent units of Google before it turned into the Alphabet holding company. So far, the most visible project is LinkNYC, a network of ad-supported Wi-Fi kiosks in New York City run by Intersection, a Sidewalk Labs investment.

But the vision extends well beyond corner kiosks and other "smart city" efforts that typically involve selling software and infrastructure to local agencies facing budget pressures. Doctoroff has spoken often about how technology like autonomous transit, high-speed internet, embedded sensors and ride-sharing services could transform urban life. He's also hinted at tech's ability to overhaul zoning rules and control housing costs, a particular interest of Alphabet's Page. 

Sidewalk Labs has discussed creating an entire micro-city or district that could showcase the company's ideas for urban planning. At the conference last week, Doctoroff said the plans were still in the "feasibility" phase. It hasn't spoken publicly about its business model, beyond ad revenue from the New York Wi-Fi kiosks. Intersection, the company behind them, is expanding those to London this year. Groups involved in urban redevelopment projects, like Toronto's Quayside, typically try to recoup investments with real estate gains later. 

Toronto could be a lucrative home for Sidewalk's urban experiment because of the city's rapid growth, surging home prices and willingness to embrace new technology. It's also trying to attract more investment from the U.S. On Monday, Uber Technologies Inc. announced it is starting a new lab for its autonomous vehicle program in the Canadian metropolis.

-- With assistance from Gerrit De Vynck

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